Hollywood's take on interracial relationships wasn't always open-minded

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

If you want to see just how far Hollywood has come in terms of dealing with interracial friendships and love affairs, you need look no further than Will Smith's latest film, "Hitch."

In this romantic comedy, Smith plays a self-styled expert on relationships who pursues a gossip columnist, played by Eva Mendes. Smith is African-American; Mendes is Latina. Not one mention is made of the couple's racial differences.

In addition, "Hitch" gives Mendes' character a white brother-in-law and Smith's character a white best friend (played by Michael Rapaport). Again, the screenplay treats these relationships as perfectly commonplace.

But for many years, interracial attraction was a taboo subject at the box office. A movie like "Hitch" would be unimaginable in the 1930s, '40s or '50s, when the vast majority of black actors in films were playing servants, stablehands or Tarzan's neighbors -- characters whose love lives were off-screen, if they existed at all.

Few filmmakers would have dared to create a love story that crossed racial lines. One who did was director Frank Capra, who made "The Bitter Tea of General Yen" in 1933. Set in China, the film focuses on Megan (Barbara Stanwyck), an American missionary who is imprisoned in the exotic estate of Chinese warlord General Yen (Nils Asther). Over the course of time, Megan and Yen develop a respect for each other that slowly gives way to a mutual attraction.

The movie is light on erotic content, and the romance, such as it is, wraps up unhappily as Yen, faced with defeat, frees Megan and drinks a cup of poisoned tea to commit suicide.

But the mere suggestion of what used to be called "miscegenation" caused "Bitter Tea" to become a hot potato. "They found a love they dared not touch!" the advertising proclaimed.

"The women's clubs came out very strongly against it," Stanwyck recalled in Joseph McBride's book "Frank Capra: The Catastrophe of Success," "because the white woman was in love with the yellow man and kissed his hand: So what! I was so shocked (by the reaction). It never occurred to me, and I don't think it occurred to Mr. Capra when we were doing it. I accepted it, believed in it, loved it."

Moviegoers, however, rejected it, and "Bitter Tea" was a financial failure.

This was a time in which even interracial friendships were a rarity on screen -- one notable and often overlooked exception was in producer Hal Roach's "Our Gang" comedies (shown on television as "The Little Rascals"), in which black and white children routinely worked and played together.

Passing in 'Life'

In the pre-civil-rights era, many movies that dared to discuss race at all were built on the idea of "passing," in which light-skinned blacks pretended to be white. While some of these films were garden-variety exploitation (with titles like "I Passed for White," in which half-black Sonya Wilde marries into a wealthy white family without revealing her background), others were classier productions.

Take, for example, the 1934 "Imitation of Life." Adapted from Fannie Hurst's once-controversial novel and nominated for a best-picture Oscar, this slick soap opera follows the troubled lives of Delilah Johnson (Louise Beavers), who is black, and Bea Pullman (Claudette Colbert), who is white, as they try to raise their demanding daughters, Peola and Jessie.

The women meet by chance and realize they're in similar circumstances: Both are single parents with money troubles. So Delilah offers to keep house for working woman Bea in exchange for room and board. Although the two are friendly, the relationship has all the trappings of master and servant: Delilah calls Bea "Miss Bea" and massages Bea's tired feet when she comes home from work. When Bea needs help getting her storefront fixed up, she doesn't ask Delilah -- she orders her to help. Delilah obediently grabs a bucket, rags and cleanser and starts scrubbing, singing hymns as she works.

"Passing" fuels much of the melodrama in the story, as haughty, fair-skinned Peola refuses to accept her race. Delilah accidentally humiliates Peola when she meets up with her at school and finds the child has been passing. When Bea finds out about the mother/daughter strife, she suggests Delilah enroll Peola in a different school, apparently so that the girl can continue posing as white.

Years later, Bea will advise Delilah to "send Peola to one of those good colleges in the South -- for colored people -- where she could finish her education and she wouldn't be faced with this problem of 'white' all the time." Ever-obedient Delilah tells petulant Peola to "go amongst your own. Quit battling. Your little head's sore now from butting against stone walls."

There's no mistaking the moral of "Imitation": Blacks may be second-class citizens, but blacks who try to pass are doomed to even greater humiliation and heartbreak. Peola finally rejects her mother and tries to make a new life for herself without revealing her race. After Delilah's untimely death, Peola returns home, a shattered soul who must now live in shame to pay for her deception.

It would be fascinating to hear what Fredi Washington, the stunningly lovely actress who plays the adult Peola, thought of this finale. Offscreen, this green-eyed, light-skinned black actress resisted the temptation to pass for white herself; she reportedly went so far as to darken her skin with makeup when she performed opposite Paul Robeson in "The Emperor Jones." In later life, Washington became a civil rights activist and head of the Negro Actors Guild and was inducted into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame in 1975. She died in 1994.

Remake of 'Life'

While viewers might excuse the attitudes in "Imitation of Life" as outdated ideas from 70 years ago, the 1959 remake of "Imitation" offers distressingly little proof that thoughts about race relations changed very much over the course of 25 years. In fact, if anything, the remake is even more simplistic than the earlier film.

Annie Johnson (Juanita Moore), this version's Delilah, is still subservient to her "friend" and housemate Lora Meredith (Lana Turner) -- whom she always makes a point of calling "Miss Lora" -- and this time around, the black character is nothing but household help, brewing coffee, doing laundry and looking after her light-skinned daughter, Sara Jane, and Lora's child, Susie.

The plot is reasonably similar to the earlier film, although there is one notable difference: This "Imitation" touches on the issue of interracial romance, as a teenaged Sara Jane (played by Susan Kohner, a real-life Caucasian who earned a best-supporting-actress Oscar nomination for her fiery performance) passes as white and gets involved with a local stud (played by Troy Donahue). When he learns the truth about Sara Jane, he beats her mercilessly in a startling scene.

Another story of passing

A more serious-minded attempt to face the problems of crossing racial lines is the 1949 drama "Pinky," directed by Elia Kazan, whose previous film "Gentleman's Agreement" had focused on anti-Semitism in America. The title character of "Pinky" is a fair-skinned nurse (played by white Jeanne Crain) who went north to get her education and finds nothing but trouble when she returns to her grandmother's cabin in the bayou of an unnamed Southern state.

Grandmother (Ethel Waters) is happy to have Pinky back, but she suspects the young woman has been up to something during her time in nursing school: She knows Pinky's been passing. "You know I never told you to pretend you is what you ain't," Grandmother says. "Shame, shame be on you, Pinky, denying yourself like Peter denied the good Lord Jesus."

Still, Pinky is between two fires: If she passes, she risks her grandmother's wrath, but if she admits she's black, she faces the scorn of the white community. Pinky is accosted by two boozy goons who first speak politely to her when they think she's white, then nearly rape her after she tells them she's black.

"Nobody deserves respect as long as she pretends to be something she isn't," Pinky's elderly patient, Miss Em (Ethel Barrymore), reminds her. That sends Pinky into a rage: "What should I do, dye my face? Grovel and shuffle, say 'yes'm' and 'no'm'?"

Director Kazan addresses the topic of interracial love, as midway through the film Pinky is reunited with the white doctor who was her lover while she was in school. She later sends him away after he urges her to return to the North with him and continue passing.

Although "Pinky" was both a critical and a commercial hit -- it won Oscar nominations for Crain as best actress and for Waters and Barrymore for best supporting actress and grossed $4.2 million at the box office (equal to $70 million at today's ticket prices) -- it's not a terribly brave piece of work. In its stand on race relations, the film is not very far removed from "Imitation of Life" and "The Bitter Tea of General Yen": Pinky has lied about her racial identity and must pay for her deception by devoting her life to charity. And the movie's finale seems to suggest she thereafter lives a life of celibacy.

The film's final shot shows Pinky in front of a house she's inherited, which she has converted into a school for black nurses and a day-care center. She rings a bell to call the children inside, then stands looking heavenward, proud of her achievement but, as her expression indicates, just a little sad, too.

Pinky's story might have ended quite differently a few years later, when the civil rights movement began gathering steam and a black actor such as Sidney Poitier was finally allowed to form genuine friendships with white characters in "The Defiant Ones" and "A Patch of Blue" and to have romantic interests in such films as "A Raisin in the Sun," "Paris Blues" and, of course, "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner."

© 2005 Kalamazoo. Used with permission

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